Cornwell's incredible link with Bamburgh

Best-selling author Bernard Cornwell has discovered a family link with Bamburgh, as he explained to David Whetstone.

Best-selling author Bernard Cornwell has discovered a family link with Bamburgh, as he explained to David Whetstone.

A man who glories in bringing ancient battles to life - the bloodier the better - is also a master of the startling revelation.

Bernard Cornwell is most famous for his Sharpe series set against the Peninsular War of 1808-14, which has fuelled more than 20 books and a TV series staring Sean Bean as maverick officer Richard Sharpe.

But he recently slipped back a millennium to mine an earlier seam of carnage and conquest, the struggles of the Anglo-Saxons to repel the Vikings.

In the first book, The Last Kingdom, we met young hero Uhtred, future Lord of Bebbanburg, as the Danish invaders were making their gory presence felt. The lad changed allegiance to join the Vikings after the dust of battle had settled.

Now comes the second, The Pale Horseman, with a grown up Uhtred - having switched sides again - wielding trusty sword Serpent-Breath on behalf of King Alfred in the beleaguered kingdom of Wessex.

Uhtred is a Northumbrian, Bebbanburg one of the Anglo-Saxon names for Bamburgh, the picturesque Northumberland village dominated by its splendid castle. So the books must have brought the author to the North-East?

"Many times," he confirmed yesterday, before embarking on the signing tour which brings him to the region this week.

"Then, to my, delight, I discovered I come from a Northumbrian family way back. About three years ago I found my real father for the first time and he lived in Bamburgh Castle.

"Well, the family live in Yorkshire now, but they'd done the genealogical research and it turned out that way, way back they were the lords of Bamburgh Castle - before the Norman Conquest."

As discoveries and coincidences go, this is pretty mind-boggling stuff.

But Bernard says he and his wife were already in love with Bamburgh before he decided to use it as the springboard for another of his historical sagas.

"We went there for a holiday and loved it so much that we went three years running from America. It was only afterwards that I discovered we once owned it. Well, not me; I was born the wrong side of the blanket but the family."

He laughed at the suggestion that he or his newfound relations might reclaim Bamburgh but he is happy to maintain the link in fiction. Uhtred was the name of the Anglo-Saxon nobleman from whom the Cornwell family believes it is descended.

Bernard's own story is almost stranger than fiction. He was born in London in 1944, the illegitimate son of a Canadian airman and a woman who served in Britain's auxiliary air force.

He was adopted by an Essex family who were members of a strict religious sect called the Peculiar People who shunned alcohol, television and conventional medicine.

After university, Bernard taught briefly before joining the BBC, rising to become head of current affairs in Northern Ireland. Then, in 1979, he spotted a visiting American and fell madly in love.

She was called Judy Cashdollar. For her, he gave up his job and moved to the States.

They were married in 1980 but he couldn't get a work permit so decided to chance his arm at writing fiction.

The rest is, literally, history, meticulously researched and recycled as thrilling fiction.

The Cornwells, in their silver wedding year, lead what sounds like an idyllic lifestyle in Cape Cod on the proceeds of Bernard's page-turning epics.

There was an unpleasant interruption earlier this year, though, when Bernard felt ill and prostate cancer was diagnosed. He was saved, ironically, by a blade.

"I was lucky," he says, "because they got it early. I was in the middle of a Sharpe novel at the time but there were weeks when I couldn't work.

"The worst things was waiting for the test results. The best thing my surgeon said to me when I got the all clear, was, `Irish whiskey is good for you'." He took the hint and duly celebrated his return to the fray with relish.

Sharpe will be back and so will Uhtred. The third Anglo-Saxon book is already written and due out next year. Bernard says it takes the battle-hardened Lord of Bebbanburg back to his native North-East - after which he'll go south again.

The author envisages several more installments, "eight or nine" overall, seeing Uhtred into wise old age. That sounds like plenty more hostile blood for the blade of trusty Serpent-Breath.

* Bernard Cornwell will be signing copies of The Pale Horseman (HarperCollins, £17.99) on Friday at Ottakar's, The Bridges, Sunderland (12.30-1.30pm) and Waterstone's, Blackett Street, Newcastle (3-3.45pm).

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer